2012-12-27

Return to blogging!

After several months of silence, here I return to blogging! A few quick updates are in order, in no particular order.

Trivia

  • When the battery of my MacBook Pro began failing in May, I purchased a relatively low-end HP Pavilion dv6 7040TX pre-installed with Windows 7. I mostly like it. It generates very little heat. By contrast, the MacBook Pro is a mini heater for the winter. Another noticeable feature is battery life: I am getting about five hours of development time per charge. The only downside is the low screen resolution, which is 1366x768. In practice, though, it has proved to be adequate for my development needs.
  • It was a rare occasion when I surprised myself by impulsively upgrading the HP computer to Windows 8! My unfamiliarity with Windows was amply proved by the numerous devices and driver difficulties I encountered upon upgrading. Reading a related Microsoft Knowledge Base article revealed that there was an important step that I missed. [For the curious, we are supposed to uninstall and re-install the devices when upgrading in-place.]
  • VMware Player now offers OpenGL-based 3D support for Linux guests. Upon upgrading to the new version of Player, I realised promptly that Debian Wheezy had a problem that prevented it from recognising and utilising 3D devices. It appears as if Sid has this problem as well, since my experimental Aptosid image failed to turn on desktop effects.
  • Thus, I now run Linux Mint 14 KDE. [Of course, it is KDE!] It has been quite stable for my daily development needs (several Emacs windows, Eclipse 3.7 and several Konsole windows and tabs). This is in stark contrast to the frustrating experience with the Cinnamon version, which I downloaded first, mistaking it to be the KDE version. This demonstrates — yet again — why choice is so important, and why it underlies the philosophy of free and open source software!

Largely distracted months

I went through several months of non-work distractions. I am glad that those are nearing their respective conclusions. Not being able to concentrate on work can be really frustrating. More so if one's To Do list is long.

Experiments with languages

During these largely unproductive months, I studied a few languages, peripherally. Here is a summary.

Haskell

I had briefly looked at Haskell, in 2000. It looked so different, I promptly left it. Having gained a little more of functional thinking in the meantime, I decided to take another look at it. A good motivation was Hughes' influential paper "Why Functional Programming Matters". Some Haskell features are straight-forward: type classes, pattern matching, guards in functions, list comprehensions, etc. Some others are deep: higher-order functions, currying, lazy evaluation, etc. A few others go even deeper: functors, applicatives, monads, etc. Haskell demands considerable time and effort — not only the language proper, but the tool chain too. The syntax is layout-sensitive, and I could not even find a decent major mode for Emacs. The package tool called cabal repeatedly left my Haskell environment in an unstable state. Tooling is certainly a problem for the beginner, but otherwise, Haskell is a profound language that makes your thinking better!

Dart

Dart is a curious mix of the semantics of Smalltalk, the syntax of Java and JavaScript, and memory-isolated threads that communicate by sending messages. Added into this curious mix is a compile-time type system that does not affect the run-time object types! Mind you, Dart is strongly-typed. Even though there is a compile-time type system, it is optional and is primarily intended for better tooling, and the language itself is dynamically-typed. The types are carried by the objects, but the variables themselves are untyped. Dart's biggest promise is the ability to write scalable Web applications using a single language on both the server side and the client. The server side seems to present no problems, but the Web programming community is divided in its opinion on Dart's client side promise. The contention arises because Dart has its own virtual machine. Using the VM requires the user to install it as a plug-in in her browser. For those who do not want to use the VM, Dart comes with a cross-compiler that outputs equivalent JavaScript code.

D

I had known of the existence of D for several years, even through I never looked at it in detail. Reading a little about the history of D, I realised that it underwent a rather tumultuous adolescence. With D2, it appears to have entered adulthood. The motivation to look at D was an MSDN Channel 9 video of a presentation by Andre Alexandrescu. D was designed to be a better C++. Several of the design decisions behind it can be better appreciated if we hold that premise in mind. It has a simplified, more uniform syntax, garbage collection, a decent standard library and easier generics. It maintains the ability to directly call a C function in an external library, immediately making a vast set of C libraries accessible. Scoped errors and compile-time function evaluation are examples of D's interesting features. Another notable feature is the partitioning of the language features into safe, trusted and unsafe subsets, with the ability to verify that a module is completely safe, etc. D has good performance that is reasonable compared to that of C++.

Others

I also looked briefly at Erlang and Clojure. However, I did not spend enough time on them to be able to form an opinion.

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